Readers’ Forum: Keep sacred Polynesian traditions between the Polynesian people

BYU Photo
Living Legends tells a lively and inspiring story of Native American, Latin American and Polynesian cultures as dancers take the audience through the pride cycle of the Book of Mormon. (BYU Photo)

Nothing aggravates me more than seeing a non-Polynesian with a traditional Polynesian tattoo. We see many people get these tattoos because it looks appealing to the eyes or because Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has it. But many people don’t know how disrespectful it can be in more ways than one. The sacred Polynesian tattoo known as a tatau is of great significance to our Polynesian ancestors who have sacrificed many things. So a non-Polynesian getting a traditional tattoo is demeaning the sacrifices and traditions of our ancestors. Behind every tatau is a great meaning, a story. Hence another reason why it is so disrespectful to receive one is that it’s the stealing of another’s story. We have many different types of amazing tribal tattoos. It varies from the Maori people, Hawaiian people, Samoans, Tongans and even the Marquesan people. We all have a different meaning but the same purpose to serve our family tradition. 

I would love for traditional tatau and tribal tattoos to remain in our Polynesian culture because I was taught that if one cannot speak what is on one’s body and explain the heritage and the roots then do not get one. But I have to say if one does not even have a heritage or a root to a Polynesian ancestor then, should they even be thinking about it? There is a saying that says you should tattoo the mouth before you tattoo the body. Meaning you should consider learning about your culture and maybe some of the languages before thinking about putting something on your body. 

I asked many Polynesian people if they thought it was okay for non-Polynesian people to receive a Polynesian tattoo. Many people have given me the answer, “As long as they know the significance behind it and practice our culture.” But then I have to pause and think about our culture. A tatau is what makes our culture so unique and tells each person a story. It is like an individual thumbprint. Everyone has a different thumbprint and a unique story, so I think our culture will lose its uniqueness, tradition, but mostly its identity. The big difference between a non-Polynesian and Polynesian is that it’s not just decoration for the body but it carries our duties, family traditions and a legacy. Hence why Polynesian people cherish and protect such magnificent designs. 

Our traditional tattoos will soon become random marks on non-Polynesian bodies with no significance. And as Polynesian people, I feel we have lost so much, from our lands, our people and now our culture with our traditions. And we are letting people not of our culture take everything just because they say they studied or take interest in our culture. I think it is fine that our culture is being spread around the world and shared, but it is coming to the point where Polynesian culture is becoming a “trend.” It’s taking advantage of the beauty and the stories that we Polynesian people are sharing with others.  

It is up to us Polynesian people to keep such sacred traditions between our people and explain to others that it can be disrespectful to take other people’s stories and put them on their bodies. So to the people that are not of Polynesian culture, need to think, is it really worth getting a traditional Polynesian tattoo? 

–Ruth Fesili

West Valley City, Utah

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